So your favorite local band is opening for a touring national act when it stops through town; pretty cool, right? While the show could be a big opportunity for the local band to expand its fanbase, the group also might end up paying to get up on stage if things don’t work out right. And some of those shows might not stop in Des Moines if local bands aren’t selling tickets.
“Pay to play” is a subject that has gotten a lot of discussion in recent months. It’s the practice of local bands having to sell a set number of tickets to play a show with a touring act. The band gets to keep a portion of each ticket sold, and if it sells them all, there’s no issue. But if band members don’t sell them all, they owe the concert promoter the face value of the unsold tickets.
“You’ve got to know what you’re getting into. We’ve learned the hard way a couple of times,” said JT Strang, 31, who performs under the name Haldor Von Hammer as the vocalist for the band SuperChief. “It kinda sucks being in the hole right away for two or three hundred bucks and having to really push merch to try to break even.”
Bands don’t pay any money up front to get the tickets. A promoter gives a local band a set number of tickets when it signs on to a show, and when the band shows up to play on the night of the show it brings the cash value of those tickets, minus the agreed upon percentage the band gets from each ticket sale.
Metro Concerts Live is a local concert promoter that regularly books local bands with the understanding that the band is responsible for selling a set number of tickets. MCL partner Aron Wilson said there is a distinction between what people refer to locally as pay to play and how the term is used within the music industry.
Wilson said bands will often buy onto national tours for a set number of dates, paying thousands for the privilege. Those bands then have to hope they can sell enough albums, shirts and posters to recoup that fee, as well as the cost of touring.
“I don’t look at it as ‘pay to play,’ I look at it as ‘promote to play,’ ” Wilson said. “Everyone tries to sell some tickets and everyone makes some money. That’s the ultimate goal.”
The booking agents for national acts will often dictate a certain number of local acts be attached to a show and selling tickets before confirming a date with a promoter like Metro Concerts Live. The type of bands Wilson brings to town don’t normally get a lot of radio support, so to make sure each stop will be worthwhile touring groups turn to local bands to guarantee a set number of tickets are sold. If the show is canceled, like the Feb. 24 Overkill show at Wooly’s, local bands also have to handle refunds for tickets they’ve sold.
Wilson said Metro Concerts Live understands that bands can’t always get all the tickets sold, but that his company has never told a band it can’t play because of unsold tickets. If bands need extra time to come up with the cash or to make smaller payments, Metro Concerts Live tries to accommodate them.
“Hard rock and metal genres definitely need that local push because they’re more niche genres,” Wilson said. “They need all hands on deck trying to promote the shows. A lot of shows definitely need that local support.”
Wilson doesn’t think pay-to-play shows are becoming more prevalent in Des Moines; if anything they’ve become less common as bands go on shorter tour cycles and skip over mid-market cities like Des Moines. Wilson said MCL currently puts on four to five concerts a month, while in the past the company might have doubled that number. Wilson said he’s heard from promoters in other markets that ticket presales are a common practice.
Sam Summers of First Fleet Concerts said shows requiring local bands to sell tickets ahead of time are much more prevalent when it comes to hard-rock bands.
Summers said he doesn’t book pay-to-play shows into his venue, Wooly’s, due to the types of bands that typically play there (though other promoters like MCL do book such shows into the space). However, Summers said lining up bands to sell tickets does happen for metalcore shows that First Fleet books at other venues.
“It just doesn’t happen in the indie rock and jam scenes,” he said.
On Facebook the issue has been hotly debated on the Des Moines Musicians Against Pay to Play, Pre-Sale Tickets and Band Battles page. It features a number of musicians on both sides of the issue discussing the pros and cons of selling tickets. Jamie Grimm of the band Reeferseed Express founded the page in December to raise awareness of the issue.
“The way I see it, if a headliner is coming through Des Moines and there’s not enough interest in the first place to where a promoter thinks they can sell enough tickets to break even, there’s just not a market,” Grimm said.
If a band is having to do part of a promoter’s job, Grimm thinks there should be a greater reward for the work.
“If you give a band tickets to sell and give them a fair percent, I could see where that would motivate bands to sell more,” Grimm said. “If a band knows that the more tickets they sell the more they’ll make, not the less they’ll owe, it seems like it would be a better motivator.”
Jacob Berhow has played two pay-to-play shows with his band, Jacob County and the Damaged Goods — one with the Reverend Horton Heat and the other with Supersuckers. He didn’t lose money on either show, but the experience left him with a bad taste in his mouth.
Berhow said he got $1.50 per ticket for selling $750 worth of tickets, netting him around $60 to split among band members. He described the Reverend Horton show as a good experience, but said on the Supersuckers show a couple of the national acts tried to cut his set short. Berhow felt burned after putting in so much time and selling so many tickets, and not getting to play a full set.
“It’s hard to (complain), because (the promotion companies) are out there trying to do something too,” Berhow said. “I wish there was some kind of guideline that said if you’re a beginner band, you’re pay to play, but maybe at some point you turn the corner and you’re the one getting paid to play.”
Berhow, 38, has been performing for more than 20 years and has toured with the Allman Brothers.
“At what point does my resume and all the stuff I’ve been doing matter?” Berhow said. “It feels odd to do something like that, and then still have to sell tickets to play a show.”
Dark Mirror and Dead Horse Trauma are two of the bands Wilson points to as having had success selling tickets to Metro Concerts Live shows.
Dead Horse Trauma frontman Seth Peters, 26, sees his band selling tickets as pulling its own weight. Getting a chance to open for national acts also puts the metal band in front of larger crowds and exposes it to new fans.
“If you deserve to be on a bill with high caliber musicians, you should be able to draw some people in and get some asses in the venue,” Peters said. “If it’s a band we like and we know our fans like, it’s an easy decision. For us it’s about making the right decision on what bands to do presales for.”
Mark Anderson, 27, who plays bass in Dark Mirror under the name Marco Battaglia, said that musicians have to go into a pay-to-play situation with their eyes open. He’s never felt duped selling tickets to a show for Metro Concerts Live.
“It kind of depends on what your goals are as a band,” Anderson said. “If you’re just looking to have some fun, you might not ever have a reason to pay to play. But if you’re willing to promote the show and feel comfortable that you can sell the number of tickets asked, you can turn it into a positive situation.”
Wilson said this isn’t a situation where slots are going to the local band with the highest bid. A band has to fit the bill and often be approved by a tour manager. Metro Concerts Live isn’t going to stick a soul singer on a death metal show just because the singer says he can sell 50 tickets. The band has to make sense for the show, and selling that stack of tickets has to make sense to the band.
“Bands who bring in their own merch table often come out of this doing better than we do,” Wilson said. “But for some bands it’s an opportunity to get in front of a new audience and sell their merchandise to a larger number of people. It just has to make sense to you as a band.”
Grimm wants to keep the discussion going to raise awareness of the issue and to prevent pay to play from becoming prevalent in other genres of music.
For touring metal acts, ticket presales seem to be becoming the norm. If a promoter wants to bring an act to town, lining up a local act or two to sell tickets is a part of the package.